Bechtel Civil Disobedience Action Poorly Thought-Out

Today was the protest at Bechtel headquarters in downtown San Francisco. I reported about the planning meeting for those people who were organizing civil disobedience at the event, and I’ll give a report of how things went.

It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in downtown San Francisco. The main body of the protest had a few hundred people, demographically white tending to grey (the Grey Panthers and Raging Grannies were perhaps the largest organized contingents). They gathered in “S.D. Bechtel Plaza,” a semi-public courtyard nestled between skyscraper office buildings.

Speakers recited a litany of complaints about Bechtel, which from the sounds of it seems to have been there collecting and handing out checks at just about all of the great government misdeeds of the last century or so. There were musicians. Keiji Tsuchiya spoke about his experience as a Hiroshima survivor. People sang and chanted. Someone wrote slogans on the ground in chalk, and a Mercedes logo in place of a peace sign. People waved United Nations flags and signs with slogans like “Support Indigenous Rights” and “Mad Cowboy Disease.” There was a big papier-mâché Gandhi holding a sign that read “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Frank Chu was there, of course.

The front and back entrances to 50 Beale Street, where Bechtel’s headquarters is located, were blocked off by short metal fences which were guarded by security guards and San Francisco police, who were letting people in if they had appropriate pass cards. There are additional entrances to the building, or so I was told, from a parking garage beneath the building and from 45 Fremont Street, which shares the same block.

Late into the morning, a group of about 25–30 of the protesters met off to the side to plan their civil disobedience action, with a few police officers milling about and sometimes eavesdropping. Some of what the participants did in this meeting was the countdown-to-launch checklist: does everyone have a buddy and an affinity group? has everyone checked in with one of the legal observers? is everyone okay with the nonviolent action guidelines?

But some topics seemed to me to be things that should have been settled well ahead of time. The group paused to consider whether or not they should have demands. Most thought they should, and the one dissenter was willing to go along with it. They settled on a demand to speak to the C.E.O. of Bechtel. But as far as I could tell, they never reached consensus on what they would speak to him about if their demand were met, and they made no attempt to, say, call up and make an appointment with him or send him a letter (or even determine if he was in the building). The demand seemed to have been chosen as an afterthought, and with the expectation that it would not be met.

It would have been hard for the participants to give this aspect of their action the attention it deserved. Traffic noise made discussion difficult, and it really was a last-minute sort of meeting. But this impresses on me the importance of planning and deliberation in such civil disobedience actions. If you’re going to make a demand, it should be one that could conceivably be met, you should have a plan for what happens if it is met, and you should ask politely for the demand to be met before just launching into civil disobedience. If instead you’re just using civil disobedience as a weapon of disruption, go ahead, but then don’t feel like you have to confuse matters by coming up with a token demand.

Last-minute demands aside (and I don’t know if the protesters ever actually presented their demand to anyone), the real purpose of the civil disobedience action was “to shut down Bechtel” — which is to say, more honestly, to temporarily inconvenience the people working at its corporate headquarters.

Of course there are always a number of unstated goals of civil disobedience actions like this one as well — to radicalize participants and onlookers, to impress people with the depth of the protesters’ commitment, to feel like you’re doing something important and risky that is a threat to The System, to give the media something to use as a hook for their coverage as a way of encouraging them to cover the protest, etc.

To these various ends, the participants split up into a handful of groups — the largest blockading the barriers around the front doors of the building, a smaller group trying to secure half of the back-door barriers, and another small group blockading the entrance to the parking garage.

The main body of the protest began to circle the block, following a contingent of drummers and shouting chants like “Bechtel! Bechtel! Hey Hey! How many kids did you kill today?” and “Bechtel: War Profiteer — shut it down!”

One man handed me a flier from the 9-11 Truth Alliance advertising a lecture about The Report from Iron Mountain. I’m a connoisseur of hoaxes, and I’ve seen this clever old modest proposal trotted out by conspiracy theorists in the right-wing patriot movement and by Islamic revolutionaries. This is the first time I’ve seen it at a leftie rally, although the hoax originated on the peacenik left. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

The blockading began around , but the police seemed to be in no hurry to make arrests, and in fact the blockade was fairly porous. At times, employees simply pushed through the passively-resisting blockaders at the front of the building, or just jumped over the barricades. And the number of protesters blocking the back entrance was never really sufficient to actually prevent people from coming and going, so they were reduced to lying down on the paths and making employees step over them.

Many employees adopted strangely sheep-like behavior, though. They’d see one entrance blocked and then just give up and start standing around and complaining, or getting on their cell phones to explain to someone or other. I walked back and forth between the various entrances and at all times (except for about 15–20 minutes which I’ll get to later) there were employees coming and going — and for the most part, you could see this from either side of the building through its mostly transparent ground floor. I suspect many of the employees were just using the excuse to extend their lunch hours.

Some people were angry about being blocked. One man in particular, a short, overweight, balding fellow in a tight, harshly-colored striped polo shirt, was a heart attack waiting for a good time to happen. He shoved through the barriers and the protesters trying to blockade them, yelling all the while, then tore at protest signs as he stomped down the street, only to stop and yell at the security guards and police for allowing this insult to his day to take place.

Another woman complained that she didn’t even work for Bechtel, but for some UCSF project trying to find a way to alleviate osteoporosis. And in fact 50 Beale Street is home to not just Bechtel’s headquarters, but also other tenants, some quite benign, like the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. The protesting crowd wasn’t very sympathetic to her complaints, and while she was pleading the case of the osteoporosis sufferers, she was shouted down angrily by someone who accused her, without any evidence, of being complicit in Bechtel’s worst crimes.

Most of the police were just milling about, calmly, occasionally speaking into the radios clipped to their chests, but one cop at the back door is playing off the big, loud, no-nonsense, black woman stereotype for effect. “This is not your day!” she shouts, and tells the blockaders to move this way or that. “I’m in a bad mood today; you do not want to be on my bad side.” The police at the back door are for the most part very successful at keeping a path open for people to enter and leave the building. However, their focus necessarily shifts back and forth between two goals: Keeping the paths open so employees can come-and-go, and keeping the paths restricted so that only employees can get in.

Eventually they slip up. They manage to corral the blockaders enough to open up a path, but it’s too much path for the people who are checking identification, and someone else slips through.

It’s Lacy MacAuley. She’s the one whom I mentioned as having said that two people shut down Bechtel for 45 minutes one day just by showing up and asking to speak to the boss (I may have misheard her; she’s reported elsewhere that it was more like eight people). Now she’s in the lobby, and the cops notice their screw-up, and 50 Beale Street really shuts down.

Standard procedure, apparently. Until the protester can be hog-tied and hauled off, nobody goes in or out. What the blockaders were initially unable to successfully accomplish, the building’s own security does.

As far as I can tell, she is an espontánea — she saw an opening and took the initiative, without this being an agreed-upon part of the civil disobedience action, although she was one of the original participants. It is bold and successful in a way that the regular blockade is not. For 15–20 minutes the doors are locked, while the police call in reinforcements to haul off MacAuley, who has gone limp by the elevators.

As she is loaded into the police van, a bullhorn from the crowd leads a call-and-response chant of “Tell me what a police state looks like” — “This is what a police state looks like!” We should be so lucky as to get a police state that looks this way. By or so, as the protest is winding down, Lacy has been the only arrest.

Correction: there were six other arrests earlier in the day of blockaders of the front doors of the 45 Fremont building that I didn’t witness or know about.

In the aftermath, my impression is that the civil disobedience part of the action was not very successful in its major and more important goals. It was largely unsuccessful in making more than a token inconvenience to the working day at Bechtel, certainly in proportion to the number of protesters and prepared disobedients involved. And it did so at the cost of collateral damage to non-Bechtel employees in the area, some of whom were not just inconvenienced but were treated with inappropriate disrespect.

As Lacy MacAuley showed, the 50 Beale Street standard procedure for dealing with lone protesters inside is far more effective in blockading the building than is the efforts of dozens of blockaders outside. People who want to blockade the building would be better off just showing up in the lobby some day and pulling a banner out of their briefcase than they would be by coordinating their actions with a big protest and linking arms outside.

A handful of people, entering the building on the pretense of having business at the UCSF or Blue Shield offices, and then entering the lobby one after the other as each one in turn gets arrested or thrown out, would shut down the building far more effectively than was done .

I tried so hard not to get excited about the election in Connecticut. I’ve officially given up on representative democracy, and I’m trying to keep my focus where it belongs by repeating the mantra: “The problem, and its solution, is not going to be found in the suits in Washington.”

Oh but it just felt so good to watch Lieberman get chopped down.

The problem isn’t found in the suits in Washington, but in the people who put them there and tolerate them. And the solution will come when those same people say “No!”

This wasn’t the big “No” but it was delicious nonetheless. Connecticut has taken the lead (and put the rest of us to shame — my state has a senator up for election this year who is every bit as hawkish as Lieberman, every bit as willing to play the nanny state morals enforcer, but who is running virtually unopposed this year).

It’s almost enough to make me want to go back in the booth, grab the joystick, and play the Diebold lottery again.